Reflective Games: Sleepover Witching Hour

critical making, reflective games

Just a short entry to record for posterity an idea for a new nanolarp. This larp might be called “CAMP GENDERQUEER” or possibly “A SLEEPOVER PARTY FOR ADULTS” or…well, we’ll see.

Lately, I’ve been looking outside of nordic larp to other sources. This has led me to read a fair bit about “edularp”, which is to say larps and play-acting that takes place largely in primary school with young children. I guess this has contributed to my having childhood experiences on my mind.

Fellow Designer, friend and collaborator, Allison Cole made a series of nanolarps (well, shortish larps) for her MFA at the NYU Game Center where each game was designed with someone that she had not collaborated with before, but wanted to. One of the games that game out of this project, designed by Allison herself, Joachim Despland, and Carolyn Jong, is a game called “Remember That Time”, a game for three players and no facilitators which takes place at a high school reunion. Here’s the overview from Allison’s Anthology of Intimacy book (unpublished, artisanally handcrafted in a limited run):

“You are at a high school reunion. It has been 15 years since you graduated. When you were in high school you were in a triad and the three of you have found yourselves at a secluded table in the corner with a bottle of wine. The evening lies in front of you, with nothing to hold your attention but the exes from your fondly remembered youth and your memories.”

In this game, the players drink a bottle of wine together, reminiscing about their shared past and pouring toasts when they feel a scene is resolved, and playing until the bottle is finished. They then engage in a discussion about why the relationship ended and a number of other subjects. As the idea for this larp formulated in my mind, I was reminded of Allison, Joachim and Carolyn’s game (which I have not playtested because I do not drink). I’ve been considering what my next larp ought to be about, and I keep coming back to questions around my own gender and sexuality, and thinking about how to explore this very personal experience in a way that would be nice for other people.

As I flopped down onto my beanbag chairs in my office, in my permanent blanket fort (see picture below), I began to think about sleepovers and the intimacy of those strange, late-night conversations, which usually take place amongst people of shared assigned-at-birth gender of similar age. The conversations that I have had late at night during sleepovers, just as everyone is about to drift off to sleep, are some of the most intimate half-remembered conversations I ever had with friends in my youth.

The idea is only half-formulated for now, but I think that, in this larp, which would stretch the definition of nanolarp, I would like players to arrive in pajamas, watch a silly movie or play some silly board games, and then hang out on beanbag chairs and couches (both of which TAG has) in a room with the lights turned off, where nobody has to look anyone else in the face, and talk.

I think there would be rules to facilitate disclosure, and of course, some kind of fictional layer/persona, loosely defined, for each player. Maybe, if someone discloses something intimate, other players also have to bring up something about themselves. Maybe there are rules about what is said, and maybe there’s a cone of silence involved — what happens at Adult Sleepover stays at Adult Sleepover? It’s still forming in my mind. This may not be the case for everyone, but there’s a certain safety and intimacy involved in being bundled up cosily, chatting in the middle of the night, that’s difficult to otherwise replicate. The topics might be the usual ones — weird little stories that are too gross or embarrassing to tell in the light of day (if you see me in person, ask me about “Nickel”, a story that I still remember telling at Camp Tamaracouta as a Scout about a kid who picks his nose a lot), about crushes, opinions about anything from music to movies to how to solve all the world’s problems. I am sure this is partially my nostalgia talking, but I think this could be a warm, intimate and sincere experience, if I design it right and the players are feeling it.

Reflective Games: Genres of Thought Playtest

critical making, playtest, reflective games

Last week, I finished a playtestable version of a new nanolarp/improv game called “Genres of Thought” and had the chance to play one round with the folks from the Reflective Games project. We discussed it before playing, and Enric brought up the idea that technologically-assisted larps could be a different way of framing a larp and thinking about what “counts” as a larp and what could count, opening up the definition and hopefully making the form more accessible and less scary to new players.

During the game, I noticed a few elements that needed smoothing out, or that I had accidentally omitted from the rules — but, this wasn’t so much of an issue since I was the gamemaster and could make a decision on the fly about things like who should start the scene (it would have been utter confusion to have all the players at once), or who should be the “odd genre out” (I used a random number generator).

The Group Genre was “Fantasy” and the task was “to keep the surprise party a secret at all costs. The Odd Genre Out was mystery, and the Odd Genre goal was to describe your alibi for a crime, perhaps explaining the details of the crime. In the scene, players were preparing a surprise party for their 30-year-old Elder (people in Fantasy medieval age eras didn’t live so long, remember) and the Odd Genre Out was professing that they had not in fact told the Elder about the surprise party. There was also a bit with a giant magical frog, and a lot of laughter. With five players, it was a bit of a jumble, but the players seemed to have fun.

The genres were not as much a part of the focus as I would have liked — I think this also might have been because all the players were active at once, and both trying to pay attention to each other and be active in the game. More playtesting is needed to determine whether five players is too many, or whether players just needed to go “on” and “off-scene” more in the way that improvisers do. For now, I’ve not included that as a requirement, because I intend for this to be a nanolarp, and in larps, simultaneous scenes happen all the time.

The question that we discussed at the end of the round was, “What is something that you used to believe in that you don’t believe anymore, and why might that be the case?”

One of the players, noting that it’s the “big questions” that are likely to occur to people right away, noted that they no longer believe in God. The rest of our discussion focused on this topic, and people’s experiences with spirituality and the institutions that surround religion.

We also talked about the experience of playing afterwards — I think that many of the first round jitters would have been smoothed out with a few more scenes, and I admitted that while I eventually expected players to build up a rapport and a comfort/intimacy through play that would allow them to get to the “heavy” topics, I was surprised that it happened right away for our group. The Reflective games folk generally seemed to agree that playing together did make players feel open to discussing this vulnerable topic, but that also our pre-existing relationships as a research group (with the exception of a guest to the lab who was meeting us for the first time) likely also impacted what the players were willing to discuss.

I spent a bit of time reworking the rules to clarify some aspects of the game for both gamemaster and players based on this playthrough. Primarily, the rules I added have to do with how to choose the focus for the scene (basically, it’s okay to do it however you want and have multiple conversations going on at once, because it’s a larp, but if you want to play for an audience, use the Gamemaster as a “camera,” focusing attention on certain players in the scene). And with that, this prototype is ready to release out into the world. Here it is! Here’s the github repository.

When I brought up the fact that I knew some fairly experienced improvisers who might be willing to try out the game, the Reflective Games group expressed curiosity about what the gameplay would be like with these more experienced players. While I wasn’t able to arrange anything for my current visit in Montreal, my friend Jordan McRae has put together a group of people who are willing to playtest the game the next time that I am in town.

Reflective Games: The Dice of Destiny

reflective games

I have been drawing inspiration from performance studies and theatre for some time now in terms of game design. In particular, since I often ask inexpert players to come up and act without rehearsal, I have found myself interested in improvisation. I have a close friend, Jordan McRae, who runs a monthly tabletop RPG-themed improv show called “The Dice of Destiny” — it has been happening on the last Thursday of every month since August or September, and I have attended every show that I have been in town for. Importantly, this show incorporates game mechanics and improvisation together, with the outcomes of important player/improvisor actions being determined by a d20 roll. In a lot of ways, there many similarities between what I am designing and this show such as the in-character and interstitial scenes (character creation in Dice of Destiny, the mid-game intermission/check in) and the other improvisational aspects.

Last night, I went to see Jordan’s show, and afterward, discussed my current reflective games project with him — although it’s a larp, there are heavy improvisational elements. Jordan pointed out a missing piece in the design, which was how to ensure that players who have the odd genre out would deliberately try to raise the stakes in the scene and actively try to highlight their genre, instead of going along with the other players.

Jordan suggested adding a new dimension: there would be a public goal for the group, but the odd person out will also have a secret objective related to their genre that would actively encourage them to interact with the others in a genre-specific way.

I think that this will encourage interesting scenes. I’ll be working on programming an app to handle the game this week. Here’s the pseudocode/wishlist for what I’d like the app to be able to do:

1. Display an introduction to the game and the game rules.
2. Display instructions for gamemaster [i.e. responsible for texting/letting players secretly know the genres, responsible for describing elements in the scene, responsible for cutting when they feel it is appropriate] and players [act like yourself if you were in that genre with its horizon of expectations, work with other players’ ideas (yes, and…), try to accomplish your set task, answer questions between scenes].
3. Display a genre and a goal for the group chosen at random from a list.
4. Display a genre and a secret goal related to that genre for the odd person out, chosen from a list. Compare to see that the genres are not the same, and if they are, re-roll before displaying.
5. Display a question chosen at random from a list.
6. Have a button that the gamemaster presses to re-roll for a new scene and question.